Closing the book

With Tuesday’s Georgian pancake recipes, our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies project draws to a close…

We have had a wonderful time discovering the dishes in this extraordinary manuscript. Working through the Cookbook’s varied recipes has brought us closer to understanding the way our ancestors lived and worked. From lavish royal banquets to the harsh workhouse diet, from the noisy cries of London’s itinerant street traders to the semi-rural idyll of its market gardens, our Unknown Ladies’ recipes inspired us to delve deeper into our city’s Georgian past. What’s more, we’ve been able to to enjoy some tasty eighteenth and nineteenth-century treats along the way.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment on our recipes and articles throughout the project, and to those of you who bravely gave the recipes a go at home. It has been a privilege to share this adventure with you.

Special thanks goes to Annie Gray who provided invaluable advice and support throughout the project, and even tried out a rather gungy and gooey cow heel recipe on our behalf! We are also indebted to Maya Pieris, Alycia Smith-Howard and Janet Ing Freeman, all of whom contributed insightful and delightful articles on British food history.

And finally, we are hugely grateful to our merry band of volunteers, the Cooking Up History Group.

We hope you have enjoyed the project as much as we have.  If you have any questions about the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies or this project, get in touch with the team at Westminster City Archives:

Thank you!

Over the last few months, some of our friends in the Blogosphere have kindly nominated us for blogging awards.

This thank you is well overdue, but we’d like to take this opportunity to show our gratitude to Snail of Happiness,  who nominated us for a Super Sweet Blogger Award, Aneela of The Odd Pantry, who nominated us for a Liebster Award, and Transplanted Cook, whose Sunshine Award also brightened our day! Do take a moment to look through their blogs: they are well worth a visit!

If you’d like to find out a bit more about us, you’ll find 7 facts about Westminster City Archives – with pictures! – in an earlier blog post. Many other websites have inspired us while researching and writing about the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, and we’d like to extend our thanks to them too. Here are some of the sites which have captured our imagination:

The History Kitchen

Tori Avey’s beautifully produced blog is full of fascinating articles on how we came to eat the dishes we enjoy today. Tori has also put together collections of ‘vintage’ and ‘literary’ recipes to try at home. We particularly like the sound of the ‘Smoking Bishop’ drink, a hot spiced punch drink mentioned in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol!

The Cook and the Curator

Sydney Living Museums are behind this fantastic site, bringing together cook Jacqui Newling and curator Scott Hill in an exciting collaboration to explore the way we ate and lived in times gone by. There are lots of historic recipes to try, but we also recommend taking a look at their articles on he development of dining conventions and the ‘lost arts’ of cookery. A great insight into the way our ancestors lived and ate.

NPR – The Salt

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies featured on this site some months ago… National Public Radio’s food blog ‘The Salt’ brings you the latest news in gastronomy, including some intriguing discoveries and investigations into our food traditions. From the Roman roots of fish sauce to why we colour cheeses, it’s a really eye-opener!

Guildhall Library Blog

The Guildhall Library’s online newsletter acts as a showcase for their wonderful collections on London history, including special collections on wine and food. A recent article shares an 1808 recipe for Twelfth Night Cake


Keep up-to-date with the latest exhibitions and publications on 18th century history with the Enfilade blog. Well worth subscribing to!

Bite from the Past

This blog exudes enthusiasm, and it is infectious! Just as good for exploring the recipes of Jane Austen’s day as it is for raising awareness of lost dishes from the more recent past. The blog is beautifully illustrated with photographs, showing the principal steps of each recipe.

To make pigeons look like puffins

Puffin has long disappeared from English culinary repertoire. The birds are now a protected species in the UK, and emotions run high when it comes to eating them abroad. In 2008, television show The F Word followed Gordon Ramsay to Iceland, where he learned to hunt puffins using traditional methods and sampled raw puffin heart. In response, UK media regulator Ofcom received 42 complaints.

There were no such sensibilities back in the Georgian era. People had been enjoying pickled puffin, without scruple, for centuries. In fact, the British taste for puffin dated back to the Middle Ages. With much of its life spent in and on the water, medieval theologians classified the seabird as a fish. As a result it could be enjoyed on fasting days and throughout the period of Lent, when eating meat was prohibited.

In the 18th and 19th centuries,  pickled puffin became a very fashionable food. Over the centuries, the inclusion of puffin meat at state banquets and royal feasts – such as the coronation dinner of King James II – had elevated the dish’s status to that of gastronomic delicacy. Pickling was a practical way of preparing and serving the bird. Not only did it help to preserve the meat, but it also went some way to mask the powerful fishy taste.

For those without a steady supply of fresh puffin, or who could not afford to buy the pickled meat, pigeon meat was an economical alternative:

"To make pigeons look like puffins", an early 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

“To make pigeons look like puffins”, an early 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Bone yr pigeons begining at the neck. Take every bone out without breaking the skin. Then stuf the cram with a little sweet herbs & nutmeg. Sew them up, throw them into a pan of boyling water & let them boyle a little. Then have some strong mutton greavy with a cut onion, some blades of mace, half a pint of vinigar, a few bay leaves. Put the pigeons in. Let them boyle till the are done, then take them out & lay lay them in a cro[k]. Boyle the lqr a little longer. When cold, put to the pigeons, cover them close. If you keep them any time, boyle the pickle again & put it to them when cold.

Autumnal apple fritters

Two simple but delicious ways to enjoy the best of the season’s apples. These fritters see the fruits fried in a tasty batter, seasoned with warming spices. The first dish is sweet with sugar and ginger, the second more savoury with salt and ale in the batter mix. Take your pick…

This apple fritter is also referred to as a tansie. Recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

This apple fritter is also referred to as a tansie. Recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An Apple Tansie or Fritters

Take yr apples & pare them & cut them in thin slices & have some cream season’d with ginger & sugar, & the yolks of 3 eggs, & half a spoonfull of flower, a spoonful of rose water. Dip yr very thin slices in this batter & fry them on a slow fire in boyling butter. Turn them nicley wth a bras slice. Serve them wth rose water & sugar & lemon juce for sauce. 

Although tansie was traditionally a green-tinged egg dish, flavoured with bitter tansy or spinach juice, the name was also used more generally to refer to other egg-based puddings and omelettes.

The next recipe is a little more complicated, but produces a more flavoursome batter:

Recipe for apple fritters "my Mamma’s way" from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for apple fritters “my Mamma’s way” from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Make F[r]itters – my Mammas Way

Take 8 eggs, take out 3 whites, beat them very well together then take a quart of the uppermost of new milk warmed so hot as you can endure your finger in it. Then, put into it a quarter of a pint of sack or more, 3 quarters of a pint of ale and make a possit of it. If it be too cold, warm it again to make the curd rise, then put your posset and eggs together and beat them well. Then put in nutmeg, ginger and cinemon and salt as much as you find will season them. Then put in as much dried flower as will make it a barter, not too thin. Slice pipens, dip these in the barter, so fry them with a quick fire in good lard or claryfied butter.

Ragoo of rabbits

This recipe is written in a large, bold hand for a confident cook. The success of the ragout is largely down to the cook’s skill in finely balancing the ingredients, several of which would have delivered some pretty punchy flavours. Very few quantities are given in the recipe, so it would all have been down to experience… or guesswork!

18th century recipe for a rabbit ragout from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for a rabbit ragout from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Brown Ragoo of Rabbits

Take middling rabbits, nether too young nor old. Cut them in joints, then wash them clean & flower them well. Fry them a little in boyling lard, but not too much. Then draw them well and put to them a pint of strong gravy, two larg onions cut grose, lemon peel cut small, some thyme & parsley shred, two naggins of white wine, some dryed mushrooms, some artichoake bottoms. Cut in bits some bits of ham, a spoonful of capors, two anchovys, some blades of mace. Let this stew a while. Then tos them up with a lump of butter rold in flower. Dont put in ye artichoak[es] till last. Garnish with lemon & red beet pickled.

Egg balls and brain balls

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Carroll’s wacky invention of a living and breathing ‘mock turtle’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland couldn’t have failed to raise a smile among his contemporaries, and the creature’s ‘Turtle Soup’ song is a wonderful send-up of the Victorians’ predilection for mock turtle soup.

Mock turtle soup had its origins in the mid 18th century, when it was a cheap alternative to soups made with real turtle flesh. Offal and eggs were prepared to resemble the texture of turtle meat and served with a rich veal or mutton broth. By the time Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in 1865, it was no longer regarded as a poor man’s alternative – mock turtle soup had become a delicacy in its own right.

Egg balls and brain balls were popularly served up in a tureen with the soup, and this recipe from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle shows how it was done:

This Regency recipe for egg balls could be easily adapted to make brain balls

This Regency recipe for egg balls could be easily adapted to make brain balls

Egg Balls (Brain Balls same way)

Boil four eggs ten minutes & put them into cold water. When cold, put the yolks into a mortar with the yolk of a raw egg & a teaspoonful of flour, same of chopped parsley, some salt (what will lie on a shilling) & a little pepper. Roll them into small balls (for they swell in boiling). Boil them a couple of minutes.

Mrs Purify’s forced meat

Forcemeat was used as a tasty garnish and stuffing in many Georgian dishes, from calf’s head hash to rather more dainty côtelettes à la Maintenon. We’ve even see it used to form a lid over a dish of baked snipes.

The earliest recipe in our Cookbook is attributed to a Mrs Purify (possibly a spelling variation of Purefoy). Here she shares her way of making ‘forced meat’. These small rolled balls of minced meat are packed with flavour: seasonal herbs, bacon, chopped onion and plenty of seasoning.

"Mrs Purify's way to make forced meat": an 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

“Mrs Purify’s way to make forced meat”: an 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Mrs Purifys Way to Make Forced Meat

Take a pd of a loyne of veal & half a pound of beef suit, half a pound of bacon. Shred them very small. Put in some grated bread, a little bit of onion as you love it, some thyme & parsly. Season it with pepper, salt & mace, cloves. Then work it up with 3 or 4 eggs & roll it up into balls. 

A later, Regency recipe from Dr Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle gives a very similar method, with just a couple of tweaks in the flavouring. The quantities are different: this makes less than a quarter of the mixture proposed in 18th century method. So, unless you’re planning on feeding a veritable army, this may be the recipe to follow!

Dr Kitchiner's method for making veal forcemeat, recorded in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Dr Kitchiner’s method for making veal forcemeat, recorded in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Veal Forcemeat

Of undressed lean veal scraped quite fine, two ounces the same of beef (or veal) suet, the same of bread crumbs. Chop fine two drachms of parsley, one of lemon peel, one of sweet herbs, one of onion, half a drachm of mace or allspice beaten to a fine powder. Pound all well together, mix with an egg and season with pepper and salt.